Tenure, or Tilting at Windmills

This post by Dean Dad, response to this post by Michael Berube, created quite a stir in our household this morning. The tenured faculty member tried to defend himself to a Ph.D. who’s never landed a full-time t-t job, and in fact, doesn’t want one, but wishes there were more options for employment in academia. What kind of choice is t-t vs. migrant labor. Once in a blue moon, I see a continuing non-tenure-track position in my field. I have never seen permanent part-time work.

I don’t have a dog in this fight as one commenter at Dean Dad’s said, so I don’t keep up with the literature though I do read blogs about “the fight for tenure and academic freedom.” I think tenure at many places is misguided at best, detrimental at worst. At a few places, tenure works as it should. I think those who draw a hard line around tenure and claim there is no other way to protect academic freedom and employee rights have actually contributed to the current situation where more and more adjuncts are needed to teach the classes that some tenured faculty don’t.

Tenure certainly isn’t a way to recognize how hard faculty work at places where they’re teaching 3-4 classes a semester, doing service, and have a research requirement. In fact, I would argue that as tenure requirements have gone up, the work load for faculty has increased dramatically. Is academic freedom so important that you would sacrifice any semblance of an actual life for it? That is, to gain academic freedom, you would work 60, 70, 80 hours a week? I know that not all places ask for that kind of work, but I know from reading enough academic blogs that many do. And that many academics have given up quite a lot for their work, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not.

I just think that one could imagine another way, where work loads are limited, where requirements are clearly spelled out, where one would have recourse during disputes, and where there would be some transparency. And, yes, you could have academic freedom.

Mr. Geeky reminds me that in such a complex system, any one element, any small change, might have unintended consequences. And that there’s no one plan that would fix it. True enough, and in fact, I think the whole system is what it is because of those small choices. One place decides to replace a retiree with two part-timers instead of hiring a t-t person. Other places follow suit. The original decision seems to work well, so the next retiree is replaced with part-timers. Enrollments increase. Now it’s about adding positions–part-time or full-time? In tough economic times, you know what the answer is.

I have no idea which “side” is right. All I know is that the economics are not usually on the side of tenure and that when costs need to be cut, positions are looked at with greater scrutiny. But it seems to me that there are a lot of losers in this fight and it’s not among the people who are doing the fighting. The losers are the students, the Ph.D.’s who can’t find good work in higher education, and the public whom we owe an educated populace.

Lob your tomatoes now. 🙂

Life-long employment

Dean Dad has written a couple of posts recently that take on the sacred cow of tenure. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in the academic blogosphere. I think Dean Dad, New Kid, Dr. Crazy, and others have done an excellent job of covering several different perspectives on the issue. I have two perspectives to offer: faculty spouse and non-administrative staff.

First, I want make a few random comments. A few commenters at Dean Dad’s have said directly or indirectly that “tenure is all we have.” I find that both wrong and sad. I know faculty salaries are often lower than they should be, given the amount of schooling and other preparation the job takes. But there are plenty of other benefits besides tenure that are important: health insurance, child care benefits, tuition remission and benefits for children, generous vacation time (winter and spring breaks, summer) etc. These vary, of course, by institution. Tenure may be an excuse for institutions to not offer better salary and benefits. Instead of saying, “tenure is all we have,” maybe faculty should ask themselves what they really want and then ask their administrators for it. Anyone who’s been in a job outside of academe (with a few exceptions) knows that the benefits at many academic institutions are much better than you can get in the “real world.”

Second random thought. I keep thinking how gendered much of the discussion is. Not only is tenure a “pre-modern” concept, as DD describes it, it relies to a large extent on the “pre-modern” family structure as well, which includes having a wife at home.

Speaking of wives, as a faculty spouse myself, I’ve been through the tenure ringer, not once, but twice. I’ve moved to two different places for my husband’s job. Moving might still be required even without a tenure system, but it might be possible to imagine treating the job as just a job without the tenure system. There were many days over the 10 years that Mr. Geeky was pursuing tenure when he came home for dinner, then went right back to work. I know many other faculty who didn’t even come home for dinner. Besides the physical absence, there was emotional absence as well. Mr. Geeky was pretty good about this, but many aren’t. Although I’m not unhappy with the choices we made as a family, the whole tenure process is extraordinarily hard on families, including living separately to forcing much of the household upkeep to the spouse to not even being able to pursue a family in the first place. The problems of work-life balance are not unique to academe, of course, but it presents problems that are often not found in the “regular” workforce, many tolerated in pursuit of the reward of tenure.

From the perspective of a staff member, tenure can create tensions between faculty and staff. Tenure often gives faculty a sense of entitlement that causes them to behave badly toward the staff. Staff often don’t understand the tenure process and the pressure faculty feel which they may project onto the staff. Most staff think of their jobs as just jobs so they don’t get someone who pursues their job as their life. In turn, faculty can’t understand why someone would leave or not be available on weekends. Staff don’t know how to react to requests that come in at all hours with too little notice. They don’t understand the frustration of faculty when they don’t respond pronto. Interestingly, there’s often not a huge disparity in salary or benefits between faculty and staff, but in privilege. I don’t know that getting rid of the tenure system would alleviate these problems, but it might be a step in the right direction.

I think DD is right. We need to move on.

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